Sinead O’Brien describes herself as a ‘wandering storyteller and theatre-maker’. Raised in Ireland, she now lives in Amsterdam, which is where she developed No One is Coming, a solo performance in which she vividly describes growing up with a mother with a mental illness.

We interviewed Sinead in November 2023 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource. 

Can you talk about the experience of making No-one is Coming?

I’m a theatre maker and storyteller, but I’m not a writer, so I was always very conscious that I don’t write things myself but that I devised and I worked well in collaboration, and it was a story I really wanted to tell. If I was told ‘you have six months left to live, what is the piece of art you want to make’? this was it. But for a very long time, I struggled with how to tell that story because I wasn’t sure, is it my story to tell? I can’t talk about my experience on its own because it’s inherently bundled up with the experience of my mum struggling with her mental health. So really, it’s her story, and how do you tell that in a way that is safe and respectful to everyone?

I know there are other kids out there who grew up in houses like I did. And that was why I wanted to make it, but to do it in a way that I’m not retraumatising myself by going to too dark a place, that I’m not traumatising an audience by bringing them to too dark a place, but also to get across what it feels like, and that was also challenging because for people who haven’t experienced these sort of mental health issues, I could be incredibly graphic and lay it all out and I don’t know if they would still quite grasp it. But in order to do that, I would be upsetting people in the audience who do know exactly what I mean, like in the first half sentence (they would) go, ‘oh, I know exactly what she’s talking about.’ And it would be upsetting to me to have to lay all that out. So the show we’ve ended up with was a way of trying to balance that.

It’s also very difficult to find a beginning, middle and end in your own life, how to structure it. A friend of mine is a playwright, and I basically was like, ‘I give you full permission, I’m just going to give you all the raw material, I’m just going to tell you a bunch of stories.’ And then he actually came up with a script. So it was not me, it was a character who had life experiences that were the stories I had told. We made a 20 or 30 minute piece from that, and that process was very helpful, to give it to someone else and be like, ‘I don’t care what story you tell, how it works, because it’s going to be based on true experiences.’ And that was really, helpful, to have a distance, to be on stage, not (as) myself but playing a character who had similar experiences.

After that I moved here to Amsterdam, and I was doing storytelling, Irish mythology and folklore. It’s a contemporary way of telling the old stories, I wouldn’t claim to be like a Seanachaidh or from the old storytelling tradition at all, I just really liked the stories, but when I turned up in Amsterdam, that was the thing that made me a bit different because there weren’t many Irish people telling these old myths.

Sahand Sahebdivani is co-director of the Amsterdam Storytelling Festival. I was telling stories and, at one point, he was like, ‘would you like to tell a personal story’. And my reaction was kind of ‘no, because I will tell a story that I think is really funny and everyone looks at me slightly horrified, like, oh my gosh, are you okay?’ Or I’ll tell a story that is really tender and sensitive to me and then people are like, ‘that’s hilarious.’ With mythology I felt I could control the emotional reaction.

So how we ended up making the show is very close to how I would do more dramaturgical work in new writing and working with other artists. I would turn up at Sahand’s place and be like, here are some personal stories and he’s like, here are some myths and Irish folklore that evokes the same emotion or the same bizarre, dreamlike quality, or has an element of a community struggling to deal with a person or turning on someone because their behaviour doesn’t fit the norms, and that evokes some of the experiences I don’t feel comfortable telling the personal story of but it feels like it evokes the emotion of watching somebody behave in a way that’s not rational and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Sahand was incredibly helpful as a director to then go, ‘No, not that story, bring me more’ or ‘this story feels important to you personally, I wonder if there’s a story in mythology that takes you on a different journey, but still evokes a similar feeling?’

In the end it doesn’t make a lot of logical sense why it moves from mythology to personal story but for me, it makes sense in that it creates the atmosphere of my experience as a small kid, where I didn’t understand what was happening. You would go to school and everything was normal, and you’d come home and something had happened. It’s like in a dream, with a dream logic, when someone is, you know, not well. My mum, I believe, has chronic schizophrenia, but for years we thought it was bipolar depression and I was a kid so no one ever directly told me and my mother doesn’t accept her diagnoses. So, it was important in the show to leave it open, that it’s some general mental health struggle, because I don’t feel I have the right to name it in public. And trying to hold on to the memories of exactly what happened is also quite tough, because it doesn’t follow a logic. So that’s where the idea came of having it kind of jolt from personal story to mythology (came from), because it was this feeling that suddenly something changed, and we find ourselves in a completely different world.

Did you use any material from the earlier, fictionalised version?

No. I think that part really was more sharing the stories with someone, and then trying to understand the process of breaking it down into a beginning, middle and end, how do you structure a show out of very long experiences, and also having that little layer of safety the first time, having someone who’s a character and not me gave me a safety net to really explore it for the first time. So by the time it came to making No One is Coming in its current form, I was a lot more comfortable, I understood a bit more what I could do with the stories.

How did it feel, taking away that safety net and telling your own, true story?

I think because these were things that happened when I was a teenager, and I’ve been in a lot of therapy and I’m in my thirties now…. I wanted to be very careful, and everyone dealt with it really sensitively, but once we had made the piece and I performed it for the first time, now it doesn’t take an emotional toll on me at all. I could get up and perform it right now and I would be fine. It’s things that happened when I was a teenager, and I’ve been in an awful lot of therapy and I’m in my thirties.

I’ve seen so many shows, particularly back home in Ireland, that are like, ‘Oh, it’s so raw and gritty.’ And it’s really the sort of poverty porn thing, like you see people in dreadful situations and they want to make it really gritty and graphic, but there’s never any resolution, there’s never any light or hope in it. You’re just telling the same story and reinforcing the same stereotypes. I didn’t want to do that, I think it’s very important that you’re making art from a scar but not an open wound. So it was important to me that I was only sharing stories that I had been through in therapy and talked to enough people about, and wasn’t something that was actively causing me distress anymore.

Is your mother aware of the show?

There’s a lot of anxiety about the show becoming successful, particularly bringing it to Ireland. I had been very careful that it’s my point of view as a child. I love my mother. I wanted to tell the story not because my mother is terrible and this was terrifying but because this is the worst case scenario that should never have happened. If my mum had grown up in an environment where she felt he could talk about these things, where she would have been more open to going to support meetings and working with the doctors…  (but) with the entire side of my mother’s family, it was like, ‘No, she’s fine. Nothing is wrong. What are you talking about? It’s all your father. He’s an alcoholic. He’s terrible.’

So there was this refusal to admit that there was anything going on, which then makes managing it impossible. If she’d grown up in a time with more support, I think her quality of life would have been very, very different. I remember, in therapy, talking to people who were like, ‘yeah, to be hospitalised generally only happens maybe two or three times in someone’s life.’ And my mother would be hospitalised every year, or year and a half. And they’re like ‘that’s quite unusual, that’s quite severe, because the difference between it being bipolar and perhaps being schizophrenia is that if you’re bipolar and you are hospitalised, you take your medication, you come back to yourself. Whereas with schizophrenia less and less of you comes back every time. I definitely saw that with my mum, that her personality would change, that she became a much less empathetic person, more paranoid and I just recognised less and less of her over time. Her personality had shifted, she was very different.

So the thing I want people to take away from this is that no one explained to me what was going on. It’s very traumatising to be like, ‘what is happening? Why is no one talking about this?’ And then the thing of, you know… I love my mother, and I want to have a relationship with her, and it’s impossible to separate this illness from the person. So how do you negotiate that? Obviously in the show, it starts off with admitting that I’m estranged from my mother and I don’t have a relationship with her anymore. But it was very important to me that at the end of the show there is love and it’s just a really sad situation and we’re all just trying to do our best.

Are you still estranged from your mother?

Yeah. The show starts with that phone call (to hospital staff who have Sinead listed as her mother’s next of kin, who Sinead then tells to call another family member instead), and that’s real. That was over ten years ago. I’m older now, I’m an adult, I do workshops with children, I have more experience, but I still think if I was on the phone to my mother, I would revert back to being a 13 year old kid, you know. I don’t know if I’ll ever be the person that you need to be to deal with that. When I did leave home I had kind of an intermediate period where I was living with my dad but I would visit my mum on the weekends, kind of like the inverse of how it had been when I was a kid when my parents first split up. And I remember the first night spending a night in the house with my mum and being like, ‘I can’t do this, I can just feel everything sliding back to how things were.’ So I just wasn’t able to maintain a relationship. I think for my mum, while she would love to have a relationship with me, I’m not sure that me as a person as I am is going to make her that much happier. Because I wouldn’t be the perfectly obedient daughter, I wouldn’t stick to the safe topics. I wouldn’t mind my language. I am a fully rounded person. I’m a queer person, which is not something she’s very open to and not something she’s aware of. So the type of relationship I would like to have with my mother, I don’t think it’s possible because I would be myself. And then I couldn’t put myself back in the box into what is acceptable.

What about other members of your family?

I’m an only child. My dad was very much the person who was trying to keep the whole show on the road. And it was very clear that my mother’s side of the family were like, ‘nope, she’s fine.’ Like, everything is grand, or she’s not a well woman, but we’re not going to talk about it. And then my dad, also being an alcoholic, was very much concerned with making sure that he kept everything fine, that I as a kid wouldn’t know that anything was wrong.

And then, after my parents split up – it was my mum who initiated that – I think his whole world kind of fell apart. This whole idea he had in his head of what a man does in the family and being the provider and keeping everything safe kind of fell apart. And then I think it was so traumatising for him because my mum did seem to be perfectly fine for the first two years after the separation. He was at such a low point. He said: ‘Her family really did convince me that maybe it was all my fault, maybe she is fine, and I was this terrible thing that was causing all of this and they’re better off without me.’

And in Ireland divorce only became legal in 1997. I remember as a kid when that happened, I think my mum voted against it. So there was still this very strong idea, or my dad internalised it within the divorce process, of ‘obviously your daughter will live with her mother.’ And for him, that was the fear of ‘Well, I am a recovering alcoholic’ but we also have documentation of my mother not being well. So it was a very complicated kind of case.

This is why I think storytelling rather than theatre made sense for me. In No One is Coming there’s a moment where my mother makes this accusation that my father assaulted her. My dad and I were very close, he had always talked about getting sober again, and we would have conversations about that, and my dad was the person I could talk to you about my mum and what was happening. He was the person I went to, to ask where babies come from, and what’s a condom, and all this kind of stuff. That was the relationship we had.

So I understood that my father would always be honest with me. With my mum, I would know so little about her; she wouldn’t talk about her family, about what it was like for her growing up as a kid. So when the split happened, and my mother wasn’t well, and when she made this accusation, I had to work out from first principles what is true, because I can’t just ignore the accusation my mother’s made and be like, ‘Oh, she’s just not well’., I was like, that’s awful, it could be true, and then none of us listen to her because we just go ‘but she’s crazy’.

And at the same time I understand my father is not a reliable narrator. My dad is an alcoholic. So for a long period of time my father had blackouts, he doesn’t necessarily remember everything he did. So I think between 12 and 16, that was a real thing I had to work out, for myself, how much of these stories can I believe? How do I reconcile the relationships that I have with each parent? For No One is Coming, it really does come down to the ‘there’s only so much I can believe, but these are my parents, and from the behaviours that I see now and how they treat other people in the world, I have to make my peace with ‘Yeah, this is something that could have happened.’ But I know that my father is trying to do better and is staying sober and that he does genuinely care about me and has never harmed me. My mother, I can tell, loves me and wants to take care of me, but also how she does that is not necessarily safe or good for me. So it’s trying to make your peace with that.

In No One is Coming there’s a scene where you’re in a tent with your dad and he’s telling you an old folk tale which then becomes a story that you tell. Is that something that he actually did when you were a child?

Yeah, my dad would tell some of those old Irish stories but he would also make up stories for me. I’m glad you brought this up. I do remember, as a small kid, my father telling me one of his made up stories, because when he was getting sober he was big into (Indian priest and psychotherapist) Anthony de Mello. So it’s a lot of Christian metaphor stuff, like you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat, and by the time he realises it’s too hot it’s too later, but put a frog in a pot of boiling water and he just leaps right out, which again was something to help me make sense of our living situation.

And I remember my dad telling me one of his stories which was, there’s this young man and he’s really afraid about being good enough, or what other people would think of him, and he makes mistakes in his life and he’s struggling, and then this old wise man takes him aside… and I can’t even remember the details of it, I think I was only four at the time. So little Sinead, after being told this lovely story about how a man figures out he’s made mistakes and is going to do better and ask for forgiveness and make amends, apparently I turned to my dad and say ‘are you the man and is the wise man granddad?’ So I think that is an idea in my head, that stories are how we make sense of the world.

So yeah, the bit in the tent did happen. But that wasn’t the only conversation, that was a series of conversations I had with my father. And the enchanted deer story is one that I really like. It was only the week of the first time I was going to perform the show that it finally clicked, to have that moment where I call back to the little kid with the freckles and dark hair at the start, to then inserting ourselves into the story. That’s the only time really where the mythology and the true story melds. I have the moment in the beginning after the phone call where I’m describing a character, and most people will think it is a boyfriend at the time, but then it becomes the fairy character in the story. So these stories are relevant to the true stories, I’m not just randomly inserting these myths.

How was the experience of doing this show at the Edinburgh Fringe? You said earlier that you could just do the show now and it wouldn’t be triggering for you. But 18 shows in a row is quite a different thing to doing it once or twice.

I was really concerned about that. I didn’t really do much before I would do the show. I gave myself those mornings to just be quiet and like wander around and eat food and be gentle. I was so grateful to be able to partner with mental health organisations. My biggest fear when it comes to the show is that that a member of my mum’s family or my mother herself would suddenly turn up. I think everyone who performs has those little day dreams where you’re being interviewed by Graham Norton or something. In Ireland, the big thing would be to be interviewed on The Late Late Show. And there was a moment, many years ago on The Late Late Show, where there was one of those phone competitions. The TV presenter is ringing somebody, they’re not home, so they don’t get the prize and he rings the next person. And the woman on the phone goes, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ And the guy’s a very sarcastic kind of person so it was this weird interaction. And then it turns out the woman is the mother of the woman who won the prize and the woman who won the price was killed in a traffic collision the night before.

So the whole air just goes out of the studio, and everyone watching at home was like, ‘Oh my God.’ And he happens to have a nun and some poet on the TV show and they have this conversation with this woman about the fact that her daughter just died last night, and what kind of woman she was, this very human interaction, and then the nun says a little prayer, and the guy reads a poem, and it’s this iconic piece of TV.

So for me, my greatest fear was I will be doing the show or I will be on a radio show trying to promote it and then ‘oh, we have a caller on the line’ and it will be my mother. So, for me, for Edinburgh, it was very much ‘how do you pitch this in a way that is a very accurate representation of the show, and in a way that I can stand over it, that if my mother or relatives or someone is like, ‘how could you possibly do this, how could you air the dirty laundry?’ that I can stand over every moment of the show and go, well no, this is my understanding or experience of it. And it’s not to further stigmatise mental health, it’s to explain this is what can happen if you fall through the cracks, if you don’t get the support that you need, this is the worst case scenario. And that at the end of the day, we’re all people, we’re all trying to do our best and the love is there. And how do you negotiate this incredibly complicated thing? Which I think I have managed to achieve.

There was one audience review, which I’ve saved, and I’m gonna write it down and stick it in my wallet forever, which was, or read like, an older gentleman, who was like, ‘my mother had bipolar, she went in for her first electroshock therapy, and she was just never the same after that. To be honest, me and my siblings would say our childhood ended that day. I find myself at the end of the show crying happy tears. From now on I won’t see my mother as this sad, depleted thing, but instead this beautiful golden deer. Thank you so much for being able to do that.’ And I was like, okay, that is what I made the show for, for someone who understands what it’s like, and to be able to come away from it as a cathartic thing of, yeah, that’s my family, and we love each other. And everything else is just trying to do your best to deal with the situation at hand.

What was it like talking to the Edinburgh audiences after the show?

It was really nice. People would come up with tears in their eyes being like, ‘thank you for that’, but didn’t want to discuss it. And that was totally fine. Some people wanted to give hugs and stuff. Other people were like, ‘wow, that was amazing. Is that true?’ And so it was really interesting, because the reason I wanted to partner with mental health organisations was to have contact information. Because again, I’m making this from a place of ‘it’s past, and I’ve been through the therapy, and I’m kind of made peace with it.’ But I’ve done shows where people who are actively still living with the parents who are suffering or suffering with mental health stuff themselves will come up and go, ‘that was really important.’ And they want to have more of an active conversation because it is more ongoing. It’s more an open wound as opposed to a scar for them.

So it was really important to me that I could be like, look, I’m not an expert, I’m not a medical professional, I can’t really support you with this, I can empathise with you, and we could talk about common experiences we have, but at the end of the day you need to go talk to a professional, you need to find a support system. Because that’s incredibly important. I think our loved ones in our family want to help and care for us. But because they’re also impacted, and you’re in the midst of it, you can’t fix it. You need to have someone who’s objective and outside of that to guide you as a family or as individuals through it.

I was very lucky that during Edinburgh, I don’t think I had an encounter where someone was actively going through something and really wanted to talk about the kind of work they’re in the midst of it was more people who really identified with it, or who didn’t, and thought, wow, that’s really I’ve never seen storytelling like that. That’s really cool. I was like, that’s great. That’s because I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m very new to storytelling. I didn’t know what kind of format it’s meant to have. So I was really, really glad. And there was another woman who had a charity where they help people write their own memoirs. She had grown up with a similar experience and had written books about it and wanted to talk to me about the process of that. So yeah, I think for the general audience member, it was more just to have a hug, to acknowledge, ‘yeah, I really empathise with that and thank you for putting that up on stage’. Then I got one terrible review, someone being like, ‘it was really boring’. And I was like, okay, cool. Now I can relax. I’ve gotten all these four stars, five stars, and I’ve been waiting for the shoe to drop. And someone hated it. I was like, okay, cool.

Who were the mental health organisations you partnered with?

So there were two. Mental Health UK, and Change Mental Health; they had a drop in centre in Edinburgh, so they were great.

And what was their contribution?

So I got in touch with a few different organisations to be like, ‘hi, I’m doing this show and it deals with mental health stuff, and it would be great if someone would partner with me that would be able to provide print materials, or phone numbers, signpost, accurate information about how to support loved ones going through mental health. What I really appreciated is the two I ended up partnering with would actually ask, ‘do you have the scripts or a film of the show? They had their medical experts, I guess, watch the show, and then go ‘yes, this is something we’re happy to attach our name to and is useful.’ And then they provided printed materials.

Doing it for that long run, I was concerned, ‘maybe this will dig up some stuff and I’ll find myself in a weird headspace, but I have to say because of the way we framed it, and because I was performing it in the Storytelling Centre, and because I was performing it with the printed materials, if someone was like, ‘how could you do this?’ (I could respond that) you can actually refer to the materials that I have, it has got a kind of rubber stamp from a mental health organisation, Yes, this is fine to put on in front of people.

So you felt that having an endorsement for a mental health organisation helped justify it to the family as well?

Yeah, I think for myself that was really reassuring, that that mental health professionals who are trying to assist people think this is a really wonderful representation of the people we’ve spoken to and helped, this rings true. And that no one came back to me to say ‘How dare you? This really stigmatises mental health, this is incredibly insulting’. Because that was my fear.

How are you feeling about performing it in Ireland?

I’m very apprehensive about that. The way we’re doing it now is to do one night in each venue. And so I kind of feel like I’m just turning up, doing the show, and leaving. I think the challenge will be if I managed to get a venue in Dublin for a longer run, or something where you’re getting more press, and certainly where more publicity means that the other side of my family will hear about it.

After my grandfather passed away, my dad and his siblings – they’re all adults – all kind of went our separate ways, there wasn’t really anything to hold the family together. And my dad had kind of fallen off the wagon, and gotten sober again, so for him trying to re-establish family connections was a really big deal. And it was a really interesting thing because he’s like, ‘I always said family is so important.’ And we moved away from our family when I was five, so I don’t feel that same connection. With my cousins, sure, I would see them every now and then, and they’re lovely people a similar age to me, but for aunts and uncles, I don’t feel the same closeness that I think my dad assumed as a family we would have. So with the show being in Edinburgh, and my dad trying to reconnect with his siblings, there is a kind of a ‘Oh, when is it coming to Ireland? we must come see it.’ But that’s my dad’s side of the family.

But also Ireland, and Dublin, is very small. So my dad’s brothers and sisters went to school with my mother’s brothers and sisters. I’m fairly certain that some of my aunts are still friends with my mother’s aunts. So there’s that kind of anxiety about it.

But as you say, the involvement of mental health charities has provided some reassurance.

Yeah. I remember at Dublin Fringe they had a performer one year that was talking about being a stalker. And he was not well. And I remember watching the show being like, he’s just said that it’s just him and his technician on tour. Is anyone looking after this guy? Is he okay? Because this feels like you’re making your show but I don’t feel like you’ve dealt with your past, I feel like this is still ongoing, so I remember that really kind of shocking me. So I think for myself, I want to make sure that I can stand over the work that I’ve created, I want to make sure that I am protecting the audience and creating a safe place. Yeah, we are talking about very difficult subject matter, but I want you to be able to come out at the end and feel safe, or ok, and if not, that there is somewhere you can go.

For Ireland, the show has the reviews, I can still stand over that I have made good work. I’m also talking to mental health organisations in Ireland to do the same thing. And then yeah, it will be interesting, but I also feel I’m now ready to have family members come and see it and see what their reaction is.